Wednesday, October 24, 2007

US Japanese beer quest ends in disappointment

Part of my process in choosing what to write about here is seeing what "bubbles up" in other posts (pun intended?) - sometimes I only realize how interested I am in certain things by the fact that I seem to bring them up repeatedly. That's when I know it's time to devote a full post to a particular topic.

The latest subject that's revealed itself to me is Japanese beer. I love a good beer, and Japanese beer is just that: good. It's especially good if you get it fresh from the brewery, like the Sapporo pictured above. I might not say their beer is "world class", which usually means beer that you have ponder as you swish it around your mouth, testing yourself for various subtle hints of flavor and even texture. I don't usually like beer that I have to think about. Beer is basically an alcoholic soft drink, both historically and even today meant to give you something to do with friends, refresh yourself when thirsty, and get you drunk at the same time. It's meant be enjoyed, either alone or with food, and it shouldn't have so much or so distinctive a flavor that it overpowers whatever you pair it with. On the other hand, I also don't like beer that tastes like water or worse, which is where most American beers (at least the big brands) fall on the spectrum of flavor. In other words, "good" is the way a beer should be - under the right conditions, a good beer is a perfect beer.

Most Japanese beers are based on German models; ales and lagers for the most part, including pilsners and stouts. Most breweries also make Japanese rice lagers and "happoshu", low-malt beers that are not considered beers in the eyes of the nation's tax laws and are consequently cheaper (and therefore popular). Like the United States, Japan has several "macro-breweries" that are responsible for producing the vast majority of beer sold in the country. These include Sapporo, Asahi, Kirin and Suntory, with the first three really controlling the market. Recently, there's been a bit of a boom in previously illegal micro-breweries as well, although I confess that I don't know a hell of a lot about micro-brews in Japan. One that I do like a lot is Hitachino Nest White Ale, which is a Belgian-style wheat beer brewed in my wife's prefecture of Ibaraki. You can actually buy this beer at Dean & Deluca in New York City, as well as at certain Japanese markets.

Photo by "show and tell", released under the Creative Commons Share Alike license.

I've had three of the big four beers in Japan (by which I mean in Japan), as well as in the United States. My favorite is Sapporo, followed by Kirin Ichiban and Asahi Super Dry. Not that I dislike Asahi; it's just a little more bitter than the other two. Kirin is almost sweet; it's very light, but still flavorful. Sapporo is sort of in between the two. (I've also had Yebisu, which is at least as popular as Sapporo and more popular than Suntory, and I liked it, although it tastes similar to Sapporo, which is not surprising.) None of these brands ever seem to get "skunky" and none have any sort of aftertaste, except for Asahi with its intentional "dry" finish. I should mention that there are about 50 different Sapporo brands on the market around the world, but if you just say "Sapporo" in Japan, everybody knows you mean Sapporo Black Label. That's the only real brand they even seem to have there at this point, and it's what I'm talking about here.

Photo by Uba, released under the Creative Commons Share Alike license.

In Japan, when you order a beer in a restaurant, you're either going to get a large 650ml-700ml glass, or you're going to get a tiny little 250ml glass. Depends on where you go, but it's always either huge or tiny. Beer is almost always on tap; I have never been served a can or bottle in a Japanese restaurant. In stores, beer is almost always canned - it's rare to find bottles, mostly because of the way garbage is handled there. Garbage trucks don't go house to house - you have to bring your garbage to the neighborhood garbage center. So nobody wants to be carrying around dozens of glass bottles everywhere.

The glass bottles and American sizes are a dead giveaway that these are probably not imported from Japan.

You used to be able to get "real" Japanese beer in the United States, up until very recently. Not that it was always exactly the same as what was sold in Japan, mind you - those distinctive, large silver cans of Sapporo, for example, were always specifically for export and had a different alcohol content than the real thing. But it was still close, and it tasted pretty good. Ditto for Asahi and Kirin. (Suntory has strangely never been common here; neither has Sapporo's own Yebisu.) All of these beers were made in Japan and then exported to America.

Over the past decade, that's changed. To reduce costs and grow their business, all three of the breweries with large presences in the United States have now either bought or made deals with breweries in North America. Kirin is now brewed by Anheuser-Busch in Los Angeles - it's basically Budweiser. Sapporo is brewed by the newly converted Sapporo Breweries in Canada (formerly Sleeman Brewery). Asahi is brewed by Molson in Vancouver.

Do they taste the same as their Japanese originals? No. They're using North American ingredients and being bottled in the same plants and under the same management as other not-so-respected North American brands. Are they any good in their own right? For the most part, no. Asahi is not too terrible - because it's a "dry" (fully attenuated) beer, it has to be made with a specific process. So it definitely has a little more of a distinctive flavor than the other two brands in North America, but it still doesn't taste quite like the real thing and it's not all that good as its own distinct beer either. It's always a bit skunky, and the "dryness" can sometimes taste almost like a chemical flavoring. But if you close your eyes and try to imagine yourself in Japan, you can almost convince yourself that you're drinking an old, stale Asahi that you found in some dead guy's un-air conditioned basement.

Not so for the other two, which to me, anyway, just taste totally different than the originals. American Kirin really does taste like Budweiser - it's practically water. Totally flavorless. Sapporo tastes like skunky Kirin. Its main flavor is close to... well, sweat. And yeast.

Sapporo also sells something called "Sapporo Reserve" in the United States. This beer doesn't exist in Japan to my knowledge. Some have speculated that, because of its "All Malt" description on the can/bottle, it's actually Yebisu. That might be the case... if it was brewed in Japan. But it's not. This is a beer brewed in North America for North America, and given that its name doesn't match any Japanese beer sold by the company and it's using different ingredients, I can't say that it's actually Yebisu. The basic recipe might or might not be the same, but it's still not really Yebisu - especially given that Sapporo doesn't even think it is. I will say that it is slightly less offensive than American Sapporo - less skunk and more real malt flavor. Not great, mind you, but I'd pick it over a regular (American) Sapporo.

So what do you do if you want a real Japanese beer without buying a ticket to Japan? Well, I went out last weekend to an "Asian supermarket" that I've got near me to find out - this place is the size of a Sam's Club and all they've got is food imported directly from the Far East. If they don't have something, it's likely nobody will. From that quest, it appears you may now have one option and one option only for beer imported from Japan. And it's this specific product:


They've added some English to the can, but that's a real Asahi. It seems like the 1000ml cans are the only Asahi still imported from Japan - the 12oz bottles and cans are all Canadian.

By the way, a 1000ml can is big. That's 33.8oz, as you can see in the photo above. It's the Japanese equivalent of a 40. (They're smaller than we are, on average, so it takes less to get them piss drunk.)

I was pretty sad to see that even a large Asian supermarket that imports products directly from China, Korea and Japan only had this one size and brand of real Japanese beer - and I am in a pretty heavily Asian area. Ditto for all the Japanese restaurants I've been to here lately - it's always the Canadian/American stuff. That means for a lot of you in other parts of America, there's probably almost no hope at all. I was also disappointed that the one brand available was Asahi - Japan's most popular beer, but my least favorite of the "big three". Oh well.
(I'm interested to hear from anybody who's been to a Mitsuwa lately - please tell me they've got more than this!)

Incidentally, I do check out sites like occasionally, and all this licensed brewing is obviously screwing with their ratings system. They don't distinguish between beers brewed on one continent or the other, or by the actual brewery vs. under license. So you'll see ratings for these beers there that are literally all over the map (no pun intended), and I guarantee it depends entirely on where a person's doing their tasting. They even seem a little confused as to what brands are actually available. There is no "Sapporo Black Label" on their site, for example, even though this is standard Sapporo in Japan - "Sapporo Black" is a different beer entirely. (I don't even know what they're considering the American equivalent - the standard Sapporo here is just called "Sapporo Premium Beer", and they have no such brand listed either.) So definitely take their ratings with a grain of salt - some of those people no doubt know their beer, but they don't all know their beer brands and breweries.


  1. Anonymous12:42 AM

    I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to note that I've made exactly the same observations. I can also get those monster cans at Nijiiya and Mitsuwa markets in the SF Bay area, but they taste stale to me. They started selling a Japan microbrew here which is tasty but pricey. They also sell Orion imported from Okinawa, but it doesn't have the same "natsukashii" feeling since I rarely drank it while living in Tokyo. Oh how I miss the constantly evolving plethora of Japanese beers, even if they do all taste basically the same.

  2. Ongaku:

    Well, that basically answers my question about what Mitsuwa's selling these days, anyway. That's disappointing. I agree the Asahi in the big cans here tastes a little stale, but I don't think it's too bad... Asahi always kinda tastes a little stale to me, so I didn't really notice a difference in the 1000ml can.

    I had an Asahi bottle at a ramen shop here after writing this post, though, and it was AWFUL. I almost took back what I said up there about the Canadian Asahi tasting at least sort of close to the real thing. I literally couldn't finish the bottle. I mean, it was ugly. I ended up chalking it up to just a skunked bottle, though, I mean it could have just been warmed up at some point, and old. But I've never had an Asahi anything like that in Japan.

    I've taken to just drinking good American beers and giving up on the Japanese stuff here... Brooklyn Brewery beers are really good, and you can get at least the Lager at most supermarkets.

  3. Anonymous10:41 AM

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. well, I'm from México and I love trying new beers. In the last few months I tried Sapporo Premium (the canadian one) and a beer called Tempus, that is a Mexican beer which has a special breweing sistem, kind of handmade ajaja, and the mexican one was thousands of miles ahead in flavor, color and on the sensation you have of driking it, you know? that warm feel on the chest ajajaja, I would love to try diferent japanese beers, but in here i think it will be difficult to get them, i'll have to stick to mexican beers and guiness, well, we do have great variety of european beers, but it should be nice to try new exotic flavors.

    you should really try to get one Tempus, its amazing! ajajaja

  5. Anonymous9:19 PM

    I just got back from a trip to Japan and I definitely agree that the US versions of Kirin and Saporro taste horible next to the real thing. Particularly, the Budweiser version of Kirin, "Special Reserve," is just plain awful. I couldn't get enough of the real stuff in Japan, but after buying a sixer of the American brewed Kirin, I will never buy it at home again. Now I know that I need to make sure that I buy a few cans at the duty-free shop to take home the next time I'm in Tokyo!

  6. I have a Japanese room mate and we've been having this conversation for weeks. I spent the summer in Japan and was glad that when I came back I'd still be able to get Japanese beer....I was very wrong. What I find around town is truly terrible and my room mate always says meh it isn't the same it smells terrible.

    Oh well, I suppose we should just go back to Japan

    Thanks for the interesting article!


About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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